Published 13 June 2017 by Ulrike Böhm

“We Need Diversity in Science.”

Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Hlamulo Makelane

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter). Enjoy the interview with Hlamulo and get inspired.


Photo: Courtesy of Hlamulo Makelane
Photo: Courtesy of Hlamulo Makelane

Hlamulo Makelane, 30, from South Africa is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. Her research focuses on the development of highly selective and sensitive methods for determination of organic pollutants in wastewater. This requires the synthesis of polymers and the application of a very novel electrochemical technique in sensor technology, as well as using unusually uncommon sample matrices.


What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

The most interesting aspect of science that has inspired me is the generation of evidence-based solutions to national and global challenges because as a scientist knowledge gained from research is the gateway to making a positive difference for humankind.


Who are your role models?

I do not have specific scientists as role models; I always look at other people’s career in science or even non-scientific fields and get inspired. Personally, I have been very fortunate to have a mother who always inspired me not to limit myself and encouraged me to do what I think is right for my career. I have been inspired also by many people I interacted with in conferences, workshops and in my daily life.


How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I became interested in science subjects at high school because of my Physical Science and Mathematics teachers and through participation in the Phalaborwa Foundation Programme for Technological Careers (PROTEC). I had no idea about chemistry as a career and thought that chemistry is one of the baseline subjects one has to do for different career paths in science. Choosing a career path and developing a passion for chemistry came after a school visit to one of the mines around Phalaborwa where I met a female analytical chemist who explained her work, and thus I realised that I could make a difference in the world through chemistry. The stereotype that science isn’t for girls and constant reminders that sciences are difficult and completing a degree as women in science is not easy unless one is extremely intelligent never stopped me from pursuing my career in science. I was persuaded and went on to obtain a PhD in Chemistry with a focus on environmental management for water quality.


Photo: Courtesy of Hlamulo Makelane
Photo: Courtesy of Hlamulo Makelane


My PhD project involved environmental electrochemistry for developing highly selective and sensitive sensor methods for determining organic pollutants in oil-polluted wastewater. I really enjoyed the experience of working with environmental related issues and understanding the impact of organic pollutants on the environment. This was my introduction into the world of electrochemistry and sensor development using dendrimers and polymers. Following encouragement from the PhD research outcomes, I applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of the Western Cape, where I completed my PhD. The post-doc research that I am currently working on is entitled “Ultra-sensitive AC voltammetric polymer electrode for signalling priority organic pollutants (POP) in coal-polluted wastewater”. This research is enabling me to contribute immensely to the critical issues related to the environmental state of the country and also contribute to the nation building effort of the country through it. Through the experience gained during my PhD research projects and being exposed to science, technology and innovation (STI) indicators at the Centre for Science, Technology and Innovation Indicators (CeSTII) as a post-doc fellow, I am more certain that I want to pursue a research career in water quality research for environmental management. This includes environmental electrochemistry and environmental science and technology indicators, as I have developed a skill set suited to the field. I have travelled a lot to national and international conferences, seminars and workshops where I presented my work as I strive to explore new relationships between ideas and facts and in doing so sharpening tools and methodologies in my discipline. I have published my research work in the top sensors and electrochemistry journals.


What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I think that most of the projects I have worked on were the coolest projects thus far, because they all contributed to my career growth in many different ways. I find it more interesting that most of these projects enabled me to produce results that are evidence-based solutions to the national and global challenges.


What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

When I was nominated as an early-career scholar to present my research work in 2013 at Brown University’s International Advanced Research Institutes (BIARI) at “Connections and Flows: Water, Energy and Digital Information in the Global South”. I felt a great sense of achievement because it was my first time to present my research work in the innovative interdisciplinary institute, where a diverse group of young engineers and engineering faculty as well as from engineering education, policymakers and those working in agriculture, environmental studies, urban studies or related fields attended.


What is a “day in the life” of Hlamulo like?

Since I started my career path in research it’s difficult to come up with a “day in the life”; however, it has been a phenomenal journey thus far because I learn something new each day. I write down the things I need to do for the day and I do not remember having a boring day because there’s always something new to learn or do. Some days involve desktop research, reading papers and scientific manuscript writing, and other days involve lab work with more practical work and data analysis. The work usually goes from 9 am to at least 6 pm; however, there are days where I have to work until late.


Photo: Courtesy of Hlamulo Makelane
Photo: Courtesy of Hlamulo Makelane


What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Firstly, I would like to continue with the development of selective and sensitive sensor techniques for the determination of organic pollutants in wastewater as there are many exciting polluted wastewater questions for environmental management focusing on water quality that need to be answered. Secondly, I would like to focus on science, technology and innovation (STI) to develop the experimental techniques and design appropriate for environmental assessment approaches of a specific case, which will also include building on current technology to assess the environmental impacts.


What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I like reading, traveling, meeting with friends, gym and sometimes going for a hike.


What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

The outright bias that has impacts on our education and career choices as women still exist; however, if you are interested in science/chemistry, go for it, and you will enjoy the discovery that the journey brings. The stereotype that sciences are challenging for women should not prevent you from following your career path in science. Challenge yourself to even go beyond the first degree and obtain the highest degree because I believe that if I made it, you can also make it. We need diversity in science and if you are interested in increasing the number of women in science it will also empower you to think differently about the global challenges, and your creativity will result in good solutions.


In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

There are many breakthroughs anticipated in shaping the environmental challenges through science/chemistry, but ultra-sensitive sensor systems with high selectivity for the detection of organic pollutants at femto- to atto-molar detection limits are envisaged to be one of the next breakthrough. The device will be cost-effective, reliable and consist of easy-to-use technologies suitable for accurate determination of organic pollutants in effluents, collecting the requisite data necessary in setting environmental standards, and ensuring compliance to regulations on emission limits.


What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

This question does not have one answer due to the increasing number of challenges female scientists/professors are currently facing. Gender bias still plays a big role in higher education, which prevents an increase in the number of female scientists and female professors. Some of the challenges related to the number of female scientist not increasing the way we would like to see is the lack of support from their departments or institutions where they are based. There is a need, therefore, for the government to address this issue by implementing and monitoring policies that encourages the number of female scientists and female professors to be recognised. The policies should also directly support female scientist by creating a good working environment without being compared to their male colleagues because the science world is still dominated by male scientist. The created platform should work towards closing the gap between male and female scientist as well as bringing inclusion of females in science, which can have far-reaching benefits them. This will enable female scientist to grow in their career and to be recognised for their hard work. Therefore, more women would be attracted to stay in sciences, enhance their careers in the field and become role models to young and upcoming female scientist.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.